5 Myths We Need to Can About Soda Taxes

Why do politicians keep trying to tax your Coke?

Like bears to honey or zombies to brains, politicians find something irresistible about soda taxes. President Obama recently told Men's Health magazine that he thinks a "sin tax" on soda is "an idea that we should be exploring." San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom moved to impose a fee on stores for selling sugary drinks, only to admit that his plan was probably illegal. In December, New York Gov. David Paterson proposed a 18 percent tax on full-sugar soda to help cover a budget shortfall. After a public outcry, he claimed he was just raising awareness about childhood obesity. But he was also rehashing the same old myths about how taxing soda will save us all:

1. Sin taxes are for our own good.

The basic idea sounds reasonable enough. Why not have the government nudge citizens along the path to righteousness by making bad choices more expensive? But even the most avid proponents of sin taxes concede that none of the nickel-and-dime proposals on the table is large enough to discourage soda drinking. And they're not really intended to. Soda taxes, like most sin taxes, aren't primarily designed to reduce consumption—they're designed to raise revenue. Tap water is already virtually free. Adding a few cents in tax to a $1.29 soda bottle isn't going to send cost-conscious Coke-guzzlers swarming to the nearest water fountain. Forty states currently take a bite out of sales of soda or junk food—if anyone's addicted to soda, it's state legislatures. In the Men's Health interview, Obama focused on childhood obesity. But the Senate Finance Committee's interest in soda taxes at a hearing this spring wasn't about keeping American spawn slim; health-care reformers were salivating over the projected $24 billion in revenue that a 3-cent tax would generate over the next four years.

2. Soda is causing the obesity epidemic.

It's true that, on the whole, fat people drink more soda than skinny people. They also consume more calories overall and exercise less. So soda does help people pack on the pounds. But so does absolutely everything everyone eats. No news story about soda is complete without the scolding phrase "empty calories," yet soda consumption per capita has remained steady over the past two decades as obesity numbers have continued to rise. Weight gain is a function of calories in minus calories out. A food calorie is 4.2 kilojoules of energy, whether it comes from a bottle of orange juice, a latte or an ice-cold Coke. Cola calories are not uniquely "empty." They are not bleak, hollow shells of calories, staging tiny productions of "Waiting for Godot" in your love handles. A calorie is a calorie.

3. Soda taxes help everyone.

Even advocates of soda taxes admit that the costs will be borne disproportionately by the poor, who spend a larger percentage of their income on soda than other groups. Nonetheless, politicians continue the long tradition of taxing the wazoo out of a can of Coke while leaving upscale beverages and luxury foods sin-tax-free. Eight ounces of Naked's Mighty Mango juice ($3.79 a bottle at Whole Foods) contains slightly more sugar than the same serving of cola, while diet soft drinks have the same calorie count as water. But nationwide, fancy juices and venti mocha Frappuccinos remain almost completely untouched by sin surcharges, while a bodega bottle of Sprite brings down the wrath of the taxman. It's the silly, sugary equivalent of the distinction between the harsh sentencing guidelines for people caught with crack vs. the lenient sentencing for possessors of cocaine, its high-class cousin.

4. High-fructose corn syrup is extremely hazardous to your health.

It's the stuff that makes soda sticky sweet—and the reason many justify a soda tax. Florida state Rep. Juan Zapata called it the "crack of sweeteners" and tried to ban it in schools in 2006. At the popular blog Slashfood, it's known as "the devil's additive." High-fructose corn syrup has been treated as the fall guy for America's obesity problem. But the hazards of cheap corn sweetener are the stuff of pseudo-scientific legend. New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle, a major proponent of soda taxes, has said of corn syrup: "It's basically no different from table sugar. . . . The body can't tell them apart." Even the head of the self-proclaimed "food police" has denounced high-fructose fear-mongering. Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest tore into a 2004 scientific research report that kicked off anti-corn-syrup hysteria, saying, "The authors of this paper misunderstood chemistry, draw erroneous conclusions and have done a disservice to the public in generating this controversy."

5. Obesity is driving health-care costs up. A soda tax is just a user fee.

Should we consider soda taxes an advance payment for all those diabetes tests and emergency room visits down the road—not to mention the cost of buying the inevitably necessary super-size MRI machines? A group of academics, state health commissioners and others take exactly that line in the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine this month, writing, "Escalating health care costs and the rising burden of diseases related to poor diet create an urgent need for solutions, thus justifying government's right to recoup costs." But there is a dangerous precedent at the root of this argument: that government can and should tax any behavior that hurts the budget's bottom line. That logic sends us down a strange road. It's just a slouch, sink and a slump to taxing remote controls, thus encouraging the fat and lazy to get a little exercise by standing up to change the channel.

All kinds of private decisions—good and bad—affect government spending. That doesn't give politicians the right to use taxes to push people around.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Meta4||

    "They are not bleak, hollow shells of calories, staging tiny productions of "Waiting for Godot" in your love handles."

    Mine are.

  • ||

    "You know, junk food doesn't deserve the bad rap that it gets. Take these pork rinds for example. This particular brand contains two percent of the R.D.A. (that's Recommended Daily Allowance) of riboflavin."

  • Kevin||

    Just spotted another logic problem. Will diet sodas be included in the tax? The only thing they have been proven to adversely affect is your teeth (due to the acid). And dental care has never been mentioned as part of public health care. Just sayin'.

  • ||

    Kevin,

    And dental care has never been mentioned as part of public health care.

    They were getting around to that.

  • ||

    My mom made cookies, pies and cakes for me to eat, gave me an Easter basket filled with empty calories, allowed trick or treating every Halloween ...

    What an evil bitch.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Will diet sodas be included in the tax?

    Must not be. I was able to open this article in New Tab.

  • Gerard Pinzone||

    Weight gain is a function of calories in minus calories out. A food calorie is 4.2 kilojoules of energy, whether it comes from a bottle of orange juice, a latte or an ice-cold Coke. Cola calories are not uniquely "empty." They are not bleak, hollow shells of calories, staging tiny productions of "Waiting for Godot" in your love handles. A calorie is a calorie.

    Not quite. Weight gain is not as simple as calories in minus calories out. Some foods increase our weight more than others due to their effect on insulin, and not their number of calories. Carbohydrates (other than non-digestible ones like fiber) all break down to sugar. Sugar raises insulin, which causes fat cells to store food energy instead of using it to feed our cells. High fructose corn syrup also increases insulin resistance, so fat cells become even more greedy.

    This isn't to say I'm for soda taxes. I just want to get the facts straight.

  • Rich||

    Obesity is driving health-care costs up. A soda tax is just a user fee.

    Cut out the middleman and just tax the user on his/her "excess" weight.

  • ||

    Cut out the middleman and just tax the user on his/her "excess" weight.

    Can I just get lipo and send them the sucked out fat?

  • ||

  • The far left||

    Cut out the middleman and just tax the user on his/her "excess" weight.

    Cut out the justification and just tax the user.

  • Tomcat1066||

    Cut out the middleman and just tax the user on his/her "excess" weight.

    Great. My fat ass will have to file for bankruptcy then. Thanks a lot!

  • Wicks Cherrycoke||

    "A group of academics, state health commissioners and others take exactly that line in the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine this month, writing, "Escalating health care costs and the rising burden of diseases related to poor diet create an urgent need for solutions, thus justifying government's right to recoup costs.""

    But anyone who claims that government-run health care will lead to excessive government intrusion in our daily lives is a fear-monger who should be called out by Obama.

  • ||

    But anyone who claims that government-run health care will lead to excessive government intrusion in our daily lives is a fear-monger who should be called out by Obama racist.

  • ||

    Believing any govt intrusion can be excessive is racist.

  • Walrus||

    "Cola calories are not uniquely "empty." They are not bleak, hollow shells of calories, staging tiny productions of "Waiting for Godot" in your love handles. A calorie is a calorie."

    Not exactly. Calories from soda and sugary drinks are considered "empty" because they provide a very small amount of nutrients compared to the amount of calories. Any food that isn't a good source of vitamins/minerals compared to caloric intake is considered "empty." It's a way to determine what food or drinks are more healthy.

  • dude||

    Why not just stop the ridiculous corn subsidies? The savings to government would be equal or more than the revenue generated by a soda tax, and it might cause the price of soda to increase a little too.

  • ||

    Wow, less than 20 comments and already 2 substantive challenges to Mangu-Ward's assertions in the post. Will she deign to visit Hit & Run to respond?

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "No news story about soda tax is complete without the scolding phrase "empty calories," yet soda consumption per capita has remained steady over the past two decades as obesity numbers have continued to rise."

    Don't bother us with facts or logic, woman.

    Get with the program. Drinking soda is a self-indulgent activity and it must be curtailed in this new era of NATIONAL SERVICE!

    You owe your body to the collective!

  • ||

    Drinking soda is a self-indulgent highly-taxed activity and it must be curtailed expanded in this new era of NATIONAL SERVICE!

  • ||

    "Eat around the banana, Dad. It's just empty vitamins."

  • ||

    KMW, why didn't you take this perfect opportunity to bash corn subsidies for #4 there? As corn subsidies only exist because of the subsidies, an easy way to eliminate them entirely is to get rid of the massive sugar import tax and the massive corn subsidy.

  • ||

    I'm shocked there aren't 50+ posts. Did Dave W go the way of joe?

  • ||

    We should drug test ALL politicians,and, government employee's. These people show all the classic symptoms of a major drug habit. Some of these bazaar ideas they "dream up", can only be drug induced. And just what is the reason we don't, because we "trust" them? Do stupid people know they're stupid?

  • Obey The Fist||

    I was hoping for a little substance from the article. Instead I got the over-caffeinated ramblings of an anti-government paranoiac. Your body does treat fructose differently from sucrose. And according to at least one, non-hysterical source, fructose can ramp up your body's insulin production and cause all sugars to be stored away as fat as soon as they enter your bloodstream.

    And, as has been said already, the non-paranoid interpretation of "empty calories" is "easily absorbed and lacking in other nutrients."

    I agree taxing it is the wrong answer, but I really wish this kind of discussion were more rooted in fact than subjective morality and political ideology.

  • ||

    Your arguments don't really seem to counter the idea of a tax, just this particular version of it.

    1. If the proposed tax isn't high enough to actually change behavior perhaps it should be higher?

    2. Agreed, it shouldn't just be sodas that bear an extra tax, but pretty much all your candies as well.

    3. Agreed, fruit juices should be taxed as well. They are really just sugar water with a bit of viatmins normally.

    4. Agreed, it's probably best to tax regular sugar as well. No need to single out corn syrup.

    5. Asking people to pay for a porition of their costs is a dangerous path? REALLY??? Poor people are more likely to be unhealthy, poor people are more likely to get subsidized healthcare, I think providing the proper incentives to lessen their costs on the healthcare system make sense. Also a porition of that money could be used to make sure that people had access to good nutrional food.

    Oh and yes, get rid of the farm subsidies

  • MattXIV||

    Any food that isn't a good source of vitamins/minerals compared to caloric intake is considered "empty." It's a way to determine what food or drinks are more healthy.



    It is a silly distinction in the context of the contemporary American diet, since after you have enough of most vitamins and minerals, your body just excretes or breaks down the excess for energy to the extent it can, making them just as "empty" as food without them. Excess vitamin C is simply excreted in the urine as are most minerals, excess essential amino acids are broken down to urea and excreted in the urine, and so on. Unless you're on a very low calorie diet, have some significant dietary restriction, or have some specific health issue that it is recommend to address by supplementation (ex osteoporosis and Ca, neural tube defects and folic acid, scurvy and vitamin C), you're probably getting more than you need of the nutrient in question and just pissing away what's left of it after your liver has worked it over for whatever energy it can wring out. The problems with people's diets are almost uniformly problems of excess - too much Na, too many calories, too many fats. The typical American would derive no benefit whatsoever from switching their "empty" calories over to an equivalent amount of calories of vitamin and mineral rich food. In order for "empty" calories to be an issue with obsesity, people would have to be taking in too many calories because they're struggling to fill nutritional requirements, which is obviously not the case since high calorie-high nutrient foods like red meat, egg yolk, and cheese are common in the American diet.

  • Paul||

    It's a way to determine what food or drinks are more healthy.

    You mean more healthful. Not to get all Tim Cavanaugh on your ass, but the drinks can't get healthy, even if you made the drinks diet and exercise more. Only the person drinking the drinks can be healthy.

    Wow, I've never corrected anyone like that before. I wonder if when Tim Cavanaugh does it, he gets all tingly like I just did.

  • Paul||

    I agree taxing it is the wrong answer, but I really wish this kind of discussion were more rooted in fact than subjective morality and political ideology.

    So what you're saying is, the very notion of a Soda Tax is bogus, and should be more rooted in fact than subjective morality and political ideology?

  • Paul||

    Did Dave W go the way of joe?

    Yes. Playing defense sucks.

  • Tim||

    The argument doesn't rule out "sin taxes" because taxes on goods that produce negative externalities make sense. The problems with Soda taxes are that

    1. They aren't high enough to deter behavior and just a way for politicians to tax "the other", red blooded moral American taxpayers aren't going to pay for that expansion of government; fatties are. Luckily though with these taxes there are enough people who drink soda and aren't obese to cry bullshit.

    2. That the tax is applied unfarily, since if the goal is to reduce obesity we would tax all fatty foods and not just soda. As well no examination of other lifestyle choices that lead to obesity is done, because logic would dictate that many other activities can lead to obesity or bad health. The end result being that the government is made owner of our bodies via "health spending" and any risky activities that aren't popular or too hard to restrict end up being taxed if they carry this logic to its end.

    3. Most importantly, obesity does not create large negative externalties; government interventions into the health care market do that. I could pass a law that required some company to dump a ton of arsenic into a lake every time a blogger criticized the President; would being critical of the President then have a negative externality? Not in any meaningful sense because the externality is not inherent in the activity; as opposed to the classic example of pollution emitted as a part of the production process.

    Left wingers love to tout their generosity, but lets examine what they mean by it. In exchange for "giving" the poor and old cheap/free health care, they demand the right to tell the entire society how to live since they may have to spend more money on their programs; and of course the money funding those programs is taken from those who earned it via the use of force.

    Imagine if when medicare was being sold they had said hey, we are also going to tax smoking and cigarettes heavily since some of you folks are too stupid to make the right decisions about your health and that might cost us more money.

    If liberals don't trust people to take care of their own bodies, why the hell do they let them vote? Because the concept of eat more, get fat is so much more complex than how best to approach U.S. foreign policy.

  • ||

    John Tagliaferro | September 29, 2009, 3:24pm | #




    maybe i'm easily amused, but that got genuine lulz...

  • ||

    I think part of the problem is societies fear of products like Olestra and Splenda or their generic equivalents. If artificial sweeteners were used in more candy and artificial fats used more in cooking it should be easy to reduce calories by the 30% countering the increases in our diet.

  • ||

    Where can you buy Olestra? It's heavily regulated.

  • ||

    Gerard

    The idea that certain calories are less likely to cause weight gain is ridiculous.
    If you even know a little bit about bio chem you know this is not true. If you take in more calories than you burn your body stores that energy as fat.

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=181

    Any diet about eat thsi food but not that food is just a strategy to reduce caloric intake. If you eat 5000 calories a day in protein and fat and I eat 1700 calories a day of carbs I bet you get fat and I don't. Or better yet if you take in 2000 calories of protein and fat and burn 1500 cal you will gain weight but if you take in 1500 calories of carbs and burn 2000 you will lose weight.

  • ||

    The Mercatus Center has an interesting piece that discusses sin taxes in general titled "Taxing Sin": http://mercatus.org/PublicationDetails.aspx?id=27916

  • ||

    Actually John, what form that calories are in does matter to the body.

    http://www.uctv.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=16717

    The body processes them differently.

    Also Tim agreed, if the government got out of healthcare then this would be a moot point. But until my tax dollars stop getting used for other people's healthcare, then yes what they do matters.

  • micro2000||

    Not quite. Weight gain is not as simple as calories in minus calories out. Some foods increase our weight more than others due to their effect on insulin, and not their number of calories. Carbohydrates (other than non-digestible ones like fiber) all break down to sugar. Sugar raises insulin, which causes fat cells to store food energy instead of using it to feed our cells. High fructose corn syrup also increases insulin resistance, so fat cells become even more greedy.

    This isn't to say I'm for soda taxes. I just want to get the facts straight.


    Although Gary Taubes likes to believe this (and I did for a period of time as well), the evidence disagrees. Studies controlling for intake show no difference between the various macronutrients in regard to weight gain. Excess calories is excess calories and it is not circumvented by the type of calorie. There are differences in psychological appeal and neurophysiological responses to the various macronutrients, but the body cannot store more calories than it takes in.

    A person will lose weight on a 1000kcal diet whether it's all fat, all protein, or all carbs. The "calorie is not a calorie" people point to studies that use self-reporting to control for caloric intake, which has been shown time and again to be unreliable.

  • micro2000||

    The "empty calories" distinction is stupid. If we threw in the equivalent to a Centrum into each Coke produced, would this make it better? How does a smidgeon of minerals and vitamins change the outcome of the calories consumed, given that the body has a temporary store of each vitamin and mineral consumed?

  • micro2000||

    I was hoping for a little substance from the article. Instead I got the over-caffeinated ramblings of an anti-government paranoiac. Your body does treat fructose differently from sucrose.

    Yes, the body does metabolize sucrose in slightly different manner than fructose, because sucrose is a disaccharide composed of glucose and FRUCTOSE, which are broken apart and metabolized as their respective monomers.

    And according to at least one, non-hysterical source, fructose can ramp up your body's insulin production and cause all sugars to be stored away as fat as soon as they enter your bloodstream.

    BS. Source this "non-hysterical source".

    And, as has been said already, the non-paranoid interpretation of "empty calories" is "easily absorbed and lacking in other nutrients."

    That's the definition, but it's meaningless in the context of human nutrition. Adding some other nutrients to a Coke will do nothing in regards to human health and obesity.

    I agree taxing it is the wrong answer, but I really wish this kind of discussion were more rooted in fact than subjective morality and political ideology.

    Then why are you on a politically biased website?

  • ||

    Also, the problem eating sugar stimulates the desire for even more sugar, thus creating a vicious cycle (similiar to another white powder I love).

    Should you be able to eat what you want, smoke what you want, or do any drugs you want, IMO yes.

    Should you also be willing to pay extra for that to cover expected future healthcare costs, again yes.

    If we ever got to a point where no one was being forced to pay for other's healthcare costs, it wouldn't matter.


    But do anyone of you REALLY believe that will ever happen? That we will dismantle Medicare/Medicaid etc.

    Since that will NEVER happen, we have to do our best to make people responsible for their own choices.

  • ||

    This nanny-state crap has got to stop. Increasing the price of a 2-liter from $1.29 to $1.35 or whatever will not change a damn thing, but it will fund whatever harebrained program they're really trying to fund. People are fat because they're fat- making fattening food, or sugary food- or whatever vice chosen isn't going to make a difference.

    Take, for instance, cigarettes. Yes, they have increased the taxes on them exponentially over the past years and is that the reason people have stopped smoking? I'd put forth the argument that the price is one of the reasons low on the list people cite for quitting.

    This is ludicrous to say the least.

  • ||

    That should read: Making fattening food- or sugary food- or whatever vice of the day more expensive isn't going to make a difference.

    Should proofread when on a soapbox...

  • Brett Knoss||

    "Where can you buy Olestra? It's heavily regulated."

    Thats true, there are afew products like fat free Pingles, but groups like the CSPI (the guys who convinced McDonalds to use trasfats) have put up a serious roadblock to a potently life saving way to cut calories for those who can't cut down on food.

  • james ||

    how about just stop subsidizing the industrial corn growers? or just about the whole industrial food system? but then we would have to pay the true price of food

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on...the Bible's books were written by people with very different mindsets

  • nike shox||

    is good

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